Book Review: Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

About

This book was written by Neil Gaiman and first published in 2006. It has won multiple awards and was adapted to film in 2009.

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

Analysis

Coraline is a haunting piece of dark fantasy, and though the film is absolutely captivating, the book is much creepier. As the book asserts, “It is always easier to be afraid of something you cannot see” (p.113). The book is loaded with gothic imagery and oozing with lullabies suited for night terrors.

We have eyes and we have nerveses

We have tails we have teeth

You’ll all get what you deserveses 

When we rise from underneath

In the beginning, I was worried that reviews of the book that had called it scary and terrifying might have been exaggerating. It was certainly dark, but nothing had made my spine tingle. Until, that is, Coraline finds herself locked in a closet with the sad moaning souls of children other mother had killed before. But, horrors aside, at its heart it is a story about bravery and about trusting your instincts.

When Coraline discovers a world that mirrors her own, where a loving other mother and other father are happy to see her, we expect she will be tempted to stay. To choose this other life over her real one, which at this point, is filled with disappointment and with what feels like neglect. But Coraline is smart. She senses something is not right (granted, the button eyes kind of give it away), and she listens to her gut.

We get to know Coraline very well as she has various conversations with the characters that occupy her world, and the other world. We get to see how her mind works, which in many ways is very much how a child’s mind works. Like, when she dismays over her father making a “recipe,” a word she uses to signify fancier meals prepared with “exotic” seasonings. But we also see how she’s able to grow; how she is building a worldview and an understanding of how things work. Like, when she recalls a time that her father sacrificed himself to wasps to save her from them, and she recognizes that he did it even though he was afraid. She realizes that this as the definition of bravery, and applies it to her own life. Very simply, and without hesitance, Coraline makes the decision to be her own hero, and a hero to her parents, whose lives she vows to save.

More than Horror

I can’t lie, the book is much more of a horror story than the movie is, but it remains relatively PG. I would have gobbled this book up as a child, but it also might have given me nightmares. It’s a quick and easy read – according to Kindle, the typical reading time is less than 2 hours. I did it in one sitting which means, if you have concerns, it would be really easy to screen it before handing it over to a child. It also means it makes for a perfect ‘Saturday night by candle light’ read for Spooktober! That’s how I did it and I have no regrets.

A strong argument for this being a good book for kids is that a lot of them will be able to see themselves in Coraline. She feels like an authentic kid – she bores easy and craves attention from her busy parents. She likes exploring and playing outside. She doesn’t like dad’s fancy cooking, and she knows when grownups say something won’t hurt, it usually does. And even though in many ways Coraline is perfectly ordinary, she’s also smart and intuitive and capable of saving the day. She doesn’t need magic or superpowers, just her wits, a keen eye and lots of bravery. She’s a really strong character that kids can both relate to and admire. And, let’s be honest, the more girl icons we have to show our kids, the better!

Portrayal of Family

It’s clear that Coraline wishes her parents were more present, more attentive and more sensitive to her feelings. It frustrates her, but they aren’t demonized for it. In fact, their behaviour is normalized in such a way that says, “sorry kids, but grownups have a lot to do, and you can’t always be a priority.” That message is sad, but it also seems true enough. Coraline never takes it to mean they don’t love her, and she doesn’t let other mother get in her head about it.

Moreover, the all-loving and all-consuming other mother is the true monster. She tries to make Coraline believe she simply wants to dote on her, and Coraline does perceive this as a form of love, but she sees that it’s a dangerous kind of love. Immediately, her only interest is in getting her real parents back. While they are missing, she takes care of herself, and sleeps in their bed, hoping one day they’ll be back in it. And thanks to her, they are.

Final Thoughts

I think this is a perfect Spooktober read for all ages. As an adult, it can sweep you right back to a time when you were young and bored and disappointed. The haunting imagery and prose make for an exceptionally chilling read, and it’s a lot of fun. You root for Coraline, and she impresses you. As a child, I can only imagine that it would have been quite the adventure to read along with. I especially recommend it to anyone looking to ease into the Halloween spirit.

I have no real criticisms, so I’ll go ahead and give it a 5/5.

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